Tom Hawkes returns to Singapore to direct Così fan tutte, a romantic comedy of deceit and desire, for the ninth time. He explains why the opera, which is among the top 20 most-performed worldwide, keeps drawing him back.
How have you interpreted Così for 21st-century audiences?
As a director, I have a reputation of always being true to the composer’s intentions. Indeed, one does not adapt operas, one interprets them. I look for what the opera has to say to us in the 21st century and Così is as relevant today as when it was written. But to make that clearer to the audience, I have moved the period to the 20th century and the setting from Naples, Italy to Southeast Asia. To stage it in a Baroque way would be costly, but even if funding were available I would not go down that path. I feel a more up-to-date setting speaks more to people today.
What is your background as a director?
I studied at the Royal Academy of Music and have worked in most aspects of the theatrical profession, both as an actor and designer and as a director of plays, pantomimes, variety shows and even jazz concerts, but my love is opera. Over the past 40 years I have directed over 157 different operas in 280 new and original productions.
I do not live in Singapore, but I have worked here many times. My first visit was in 1989 with a touring production of Così fan tutte, and I held the inaugural role of Director of Productions for the newly formed Singapore Lyric Opera for three years. Over the intervening years, I’ve worked with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra staging chamber operas, and have returned to Singapore Lyric Opera on a regular basis, my last production being Don Giovanni in 2012.
After 200 years, why does Così remain so popular?
This is my ninth new production of Così, and I ask myself why I keep returning to this work with such a sense of anticipation, pleasure and excitement, although I turn down repeat productions of other well known works. Well, like Puccini’s La Bohème, it is an opera about youth and the bittersweet experience of falling in love and being in love, something we have all experienced.
Così explores universal themes, and that is what makes it as pertinent today as in 1790. There are so many questions posed in the opera, and no one production answers them all. That is the challenge for the director. On one level, the audience can sit back and enjoy the unfolding of Don Alfonso’s wager set to Mozart’s fantastic score, but I hope that when it is all over they will go home with a few questions about their own lives in relation to what they have just seen.
What is your favourite musical number in Così?
In a musical score so rich, it is hard to single out any one moment; but, if forced to, I would say the Act I finale. All six characters are on stage and involved in the apparent attempted suicide of the two young men; their subsequent revival by a mock doctor, Despina, in disguise; and their declaration of passion for the two young ladies. The scene manages to combine the very best of comedic opera and a fantastic musical ensemble of great beauty and originality.
See Così Fan Tutte on 28 February, 1 and 3 March, at the Esplanade Theatre at 8pm. Sung in Italian with English and Chinese subtitles. Tickets from Sistic.